There were two of them.
It was an ordinary day. Perhaps, the streets were crowded, and fruit carts remained immobile. The vendors set up their stalls right before the alley where old vehicles stood: their paint worn out, and doors dented. Perhaps, it wasn’t any different than the day we arrived. Were there pallid faces roaming around the corners wondering if they could have known? We imagined them there, and everywhere: faces fraught with grief.
For, we couldn’t know. We knew of their places but little of their memories. We knew of their stories but little of them. We had some questions, and fewer answers. There was only so much we could gather from their tales.
Where the Naranyanpur left bank canal ends, the town begins. The water hadn’t risen. It was one of those days. A little girl sat near the walls washing her feet.
The boy stood atop staring into nothing.
The canal wasn’t filled.
“They were neighbours. Those kids grew up together. I knew them,” said Shankar averting his gaze.
She held onto the walls for as long as she could. The water levels rose with fury. Her back slipped first dragging her deeper into the water. She screamed for help. He jumped in to save her.
“It was awful. When I received the call, I went blank. I rang everyone I knew: the assistant engineer, chief engineer. Everybody. I told them that two of our children had fallen in. They couldn’t help,” he said scratching his head, “They mustn’t cut the supply abruptly, they told us. It would affect the overall pressure and water supply to neighbouring villages. With every passing moment, they reduced the pressure considerably. In the morning, we found them floating face down in water just a km away from where we were. It was a terrible tragedy. They were such beautiful children. Maybe, their time had come. It was God’s will. What else could it be? The media was cruel to the family. To us. They tried to concoct stories and twist the truth as if there was something going on between them. The incident shook the entire village. For weeks, everyone mourned their loss.”
Those poor children, he repeated shaking his head over and over again.
His wife never went to school. She taught herself tailoring and stitching. She now trains several girls in the village. They have two daughters and one son. “I take care of my brother-in-law’s daughter. She was living with her family until recently,” he explained one morning as we walked alongside the road that led to Yelagi thanda. “One day, during a festival, some people approached my sadu. They really liked his daughter. She was in tenth grade. They wanted to get her married to their son. He called up his wife and said Get her ready after school. They are coming to visit us. When I found out, I hurled abuses at him. I told him I’ll take care of her, and send her to school. I’ll give her the life she deserves. We must not enforce our decisions on any child – boy or girl. We can’t take away the will of a human being.”
The school bus never comes to Yalegi Thanda. There are barely any students enrolled in the English medium school. Shankar spoke to a few families and convinced them to send their children to better schools. A bus was then arranged for them.
“I did it for my children. A few more joined them,” he said beaming with pride, “I am selfish that way.” The crinkles around his eyes shone in the sun.
“No matter what life throws at me, I won’t let them suffer.”
“Has it been difficult to survive?” weask him.
He pondered for a while but he had done it before. It was difficult. It has always been and he feared it would remain that way for a while. “I haven’t earned any money. But I have earned ample relationships,” he said tossing his head backwards.
“That is how a human being will be remembered at the end of the day not by his bank balance but by the nature of help or guidance he provided to another human being. That’s enough for me.”
The next morning, crouching behind a crumbling wall, we saw a little girl peek into a stall that sold breakfast. Weeds preened at the railings of a dilapidated building where right off the corner stood an old vendor selling juice. We saw a few of them waiting for someone to turn around. A young boy lurked near our table. He stood there staring at us for a while. His feet were dirty, and his hair changed colour in the dark. His shoe laces were undone; the other pair didn’t have a sole. He looked at us rubbing his nails over and over again. We gestured him to come over. His parents lived nearby, he said to us looking down. His clothes were tattered and his pants had holes in them. We ate breakfast in silence. He thanked us, and left.
It was quiet like most summer mornings in these parts. Leaves died without grace while barks shrivelled before our sight. Some days, nothing remained. An old man sat on the road. His pupils were luminous. Swirls of smoke rose from his lips as he held his beedi with both hands. The silence was everywhere. Like a forgotten companion leaving its footprints on sand, it followed us. It was in such absences that we felt it. But it wasn’t an odd realisation: the presence of a quietude.
We parked near a temple. A group of people approached us wondering if we were lost.
“Where does Shankar live?” we asked one of the older men who stood beside us. They pulled out their cell phones and rang him up. They then ushered us into a tiny tea stall that sold orange sweets wrapped in plastic. A young boy with a lock around his neck ordered the grandfather to hand him some milk. He earned a tap on his head as he ran away.
“Our God is different,” they declared excitedly raising their arms in the air, “Seva Lal gave us order. He laid down rules for the Lambani community. These are laws that govern our lives. Every Banjara follows them. He taught us how to stay united in spirit and soul. Did you know that Gormati comprises 13 languages? When our ancestors migrated from Rajasthan, our language evolved along the way. You won’t be able to learn my language. But I can speak yours with great ease.”
The thanda is more than 120 years old, said an old man cracking open a box of peanuts. They knew everything that had happened since 1947. Those who knew of earlier times had died a long time ago. They took their history with them. It was never chronicled. They don’t remember anything save their struggles. Those were passed on from father to son, and mother to daughter.
Struggles were never forgotten.
“We didn’t ask them,” said an old man wiping his face with a towel. His hands shook with every move. He had freckles under his eyes. “Like us, nobody listens to stories anymore. No one wants to know where we came from. It doesn’t interest us anymore.”
The priest disagreed. He shook his head vehemently turning his gaze to the men gathered beside him. Wreaths of smoke curled up towards their faces as they lit their beedis one after another. In a plastic box, cheap cigarettes were thrown into one corner, and loose change into another.
“Hum ek sanchari jeevan jeete the,” said the priest, “And, that’s why we were treated poorly centuries ago. We kept moving from one place to another. We didn’t have proper clothing or food at times. In reality, we belonged to a higher caste. But we were the forest-dwellers who never stayed. May be that’s why they considered us inferior. We were uncouth. Sometimes, they called us savages.”
They were running away, and we could see it. From a past that maligned their identity, from cruelty, they ran away into realms where they could find none – no malice, no hierarchy, where paths led home, and not structures that bore the burden of their poverty.
They carried memories with them. In doorways, in homes, in open courtyards and windows where they drew patterns, they remained for centuries. Years ago, when we first set foot into the deserts of Rajasthan, we had seen such sights and heard similar stories. Everything stood still in these regions save time.
“Our appearance would give us away. The men wore dhoti and turbans which resembled anyone from North Karnataka while the women’s attire made them stand out. They thought it was best to keep us out of their villages. They confused us for adivasis who lived in the forests. But we were nomads. Not adivasis,” said the priest frowning.
We told them it didn’t matter. These social distinctions rose with the need to exploit those who were helpless and deprived of basic human dignity.
They were ashamed of their identity but they never admitted it.
Not to us. Not to themselves.
In 1947, many families settled down in these areas. They built homes outside villages that refused to let them in. “Before independence, we didn’t get many facilities from the government. People didn’t send their kids to school. The situation was quite dismal. However, over time, as we got educated, the economic condition of our community improved. We are no longer considered backward by society,” said Shankar slapping his knees as the others joined him.
Most of them rely on farming to feed their families. Some go to the jungles and others do labour work to earn their living. “Some have government jobs. We will do anything and everything to make ends meet. Today, we have engineers and doctors within the community. Isn’t that something? Who’d have thought? We were called ‘junglee log’ at some point in our lives. Not anymore. Now, we are cultured. And, we live amongst the cultured lot.”
Ab hum achuth nahin rahe…
(to be continued…)
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